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“Reality is setting in:” why some ISIS fighters are packing up and going home

Turns out it's not as fun as this propaganda makes it look.
Turns out it's not as fun as this propaganda makes it look.
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Imagine you're a new ISIS recruit. You've been lured to Iraq or Syria with promises of brotherhood and a glorious, apocalyptic battle against Shia and Western infidels. Islamic utopia, you believe, is at your fingertips.

But when you get there, it's nothing like what you'd expected. At best, you're carrying a gun in a dirty, vicious, inconclusive civil war. At worst, you're scrubbing toilets — or being fitted with a suicide vest. Wouldn't you want to get out?

There haven't been waves of mass defections from ISIS, but a few people have left the group. A new report from the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) looks at the cases of ISIS volunteers who've grown disillusioned, quit, and survived to tell the story. ICSR's researchers verified 58 publicly-reported cases between January and August of this year alone. The true number of defectors is likely higher — and the pace of defections from ISIS, according to ICSR, is increasing.

To understand what's going on and what these defections mean for ISIS, I spoke to Peter Neumann, ICSR's director. Neumann said he believes there's lot more that the US and other Western powers could do to encourage defections and use them against ISIS. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp: Why are people defecting from ISIS?

Peter Neumann: Overall, across the 58 cases [of recorded defections], the narratives were very [similar]. The strongest one was that ISIS is not really fighting against [Syrian leader Bashar] Assad. Most of the effort and energy that these people found being expended was being expended on other Sunni groups. They basically thought that this was not the kind of jihad that they wanted to fight.

The second narrative was brutality. But the important thing is that the complaints about atrocity were seen through a sectarian lens. People didn't care about the mistreatment of minorities. Rather, they got really upset when ISIS randomly killed Sunni women and children or executed its own fighters.

The third narrative was about corruption — not so much systemic, but the actions of individual fighters and emirs. The Syrians that defected, for example, were very upset about the fact that foreign fighters were constantly being given privileges. There were also broader complaints about unfairness, inequality, and even racism. There's an Indian fighter who was forced to clean toilets by ISIS because of his skin color. People thought this was all un-Islamic and inconsistent with what ISIS is claiming to be.

The fourth narrative is basically about being disappointed in the experience, the quality of life, harsh living conditions, and the combat experience. A lot of people wanted a kind of "gangster jihadism" — they went in with the expectation that they'd be Rambo. But a lot of them reported that their military deployments were pretty dull, and that they thought they'd be used as cannon fodder.

Zack Beauchamp:How many people are actually defecting from ISIS?

Peter Neumann: It's incredibly difficult to extrapolate; I can't give you an exact ratio like "for every one defector we can verify, there are ten we can't." But what we can say for sure, based on our data, is that the numbers are increasing. Two-thirds of all of the public defections happened this year; one-third alone happened in the last three months.

There are probably hundreds who are disillusioned and ready to defect. Based on other research, where we're communicating with fighters, we can see that the narratives of defectors are representative of a wider feeling within the foot soldiers of ISIS.

This doesn't mean that they'll all defect — it's not actually that easy. ISIS has executed dozens of people as spies and traitors; you have to be really shrewd in coming up with an excuse to get out of ISIS territory. Then you need to convince your government to welcome you back.

Zack Beauchamp:If defecting is so risky, why are people willing to chance it?

Peter Neumann: One factor is time. When the first defections happened, ISIS had barely started existing as an organization — ISIS had only been around for eight months. It's now been around for two and a half years, so some of these people are discovering that not everything is as it seems.

And, of course, ISIS is no longer as successful as it used to be. Last summer, there was a lot of excitement about ISIS expanding, ISIS being on the march. Now, there's a sense that perhaps ISIS is not going to be running and taking the entire world within the next two years. And that perhaps creates a compounded feeling of the reality not being what it's meant to be.

And maybe a third factor is that it's like this with every utopia. Utopia is great — as long as it doesn't exist in reality. Democracy in theory is fantastic, but most of us living in democracies know that there are a lot of flaws in practice. ISIS had the advantage, until a couple of years ago, that it didn't have to show that what it was promising would actually pan out as it promised.

But now that it's been there, the wheels are starting to come off — people are starting to see that it's not as great as we were promised it would be. Reality is setting in.

Zack Beauchamp: What does that tell you about ISIS's strategic position? Is defection and disillusionment a major problem for the group?

Peter Neumann: I think it could become a big problem as time goes on. I don't think it's one now, but what we are hearing from fighters we're talking to is that ISIS's paranoia about spies, traitors, and defectors has definitely increased. As have reports of people being executed for those reasons.

ISIS fighter

An ISIS fighter in Syria. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Again, I don't think that right now this is necessarily threatening the organization as a whole. But it is a major nuisance — and it could develop into something much bigger if the organization continues to fail to deliver on the ground. It's definitely something to keep watching.

Zack Beauchamp: There's an interesting tension in what you said just there. On the one hand, it seems that ISIS's response to these defections has been to amp up the brutality — kill people to try to deter further defections. But, at the same time, what you told me earlier is that this level of brutality against Sunnis specifically is one of the causes of defections.

Peter Neumann: It becomes a vicious circle. We've seen this in other totalitarian regimes: they start off with a degree of goodwill from supporters, but then start using more and more terror in order to coerce good behavior. Eventually, they're only consisting of terror.

ISIS can exist for a while if it only rules by terror. But it will become more and more difficult: even the most repressive dictatorships usually have, from some people, a degree of consent. If ISIS starts relying only on coercion in terms of getting people to stay with the group, it will become more and more difficult for them.

I don't think we're at the point yet where ISIS is close to collapsing. I think we will have some way to go. But the point, if you want to see the research in a broad context, is that this is perhaps the beginning of something. These fighters are the people who might be considered the most loyal — people who have freely volunteered to be part of the network, who are receiving a lot of privileges compared to ordinary people. If even they are becoming unsettled, this could be the beginning.

Zack Beauchamp: So what are these fighters like after they defect? Do they still hold on to radical beliefs?

Peter Neumann: Some of these people are committed extremists. They do believe in the notion of a caliphate, and of an Islamic state. They just think that ISIS isn't it — that they're betraying this vision.

The point is not to be naive about people who are disillusioned. You can see that in the absence of commentary about atrocities being carried out against minorities. These people, by in large, didn't care about them. There was not one who talked about slavery, who talked about the abuse and summary execution of Shia and Christians.

That indicates that, at the very least, there's a very sectarian mindset — and, in some cases, there's still a mindset that agrees with the general principles of the Islamic State.

Zack Beauchamp:Bearing that in mind, what does this say about what governments can do to use these defections to hurt ISIS?

Peter Neumann: The best that governments can do is making clear to defectors that their testimony will not be used against them. We're not saying that these people should be given amnesty, as some of these people have committed crimes. But it should be a mitigating factor.

Right now, that's not the case. Many people aren't speaking out because they fear that their comments may be used against them in a trial.

Governments can also be helpful with resettlement, ensuring the safety of defectors, almost like witness protection programs. Right now, a lot of defectors move back to their hometowns. Those often happen to be the towns where they joined the jihadist movement. A lot of their friends and acquaintances will learn about their defection, and many will still support ISIS. That makes defectors very scared.

So if someone like that wants to defect, but is fearful of reprisals, I think government can be helpful with that.

In terms of promoting these narratives, I think that's not really government's job.

Zack Beauchamp: The State Department's anti-ISIS propaganda Twitter account — Think Again Turn Away — always struck me as very heavy-handed.

Peter Neumann: I agree.

You know, we're not government. We wrote a report about this and it's in the New York Times, it's everywhere. A lot of journalists are looking for these narratives — every day, we have journalists calling us and and asking if they can speak to former fighters, telling us their story.

The narratives are valuable because they show that ISIS is not as united and ideologically cohesive as it always claims. It also can help in deterring other people from going there in the first place. So far, the only information that really comes out of the Islamic State comes from the Islamic State itself. Their narratives are a counterpoint to ISIS's claims about how it's running its territory.

You don't need a government to put that on their Twitter account. These defectors are not relying on Think Again Turn Away to promote their story; a lot of people want to talk. All the government needs to do is make people feel confident that they can tell their stories. Civil society and the media will do the rest.

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